Donn's Articles » Cheltenham preamble – Arkle and RSA Chase

Cheltenham preamble – Arkle and RSA Chase

If Cheltenham were England versus Ireland in a compendium of games, and if Prestbury Park were Wembley and Twickenham and Croke Park all rolled into one, then the Arkle would be rugby and the RSA Chase would be soccer. Interestingly, the Cross-Country Chase would be hurling, and Enda Bolger would be Henry Shefflin with a concrete block tied to one of his ankles (it is a handicap after all), but that’s another discussion for another day.

You would think that a horse named Punchestowns, favourite for the RSA Chase, would be Irish to the marrow. Not so. Bred in France, trained in England, Tony Cascarino was one thing, but not even Jack Charlton would be able to sign this fellow up. Add his stable companion Long Run, who also has the option of the Arkle, Diamond Harry, Weird Al and Bensalem, and the home team looks formidable.

Pandorama and Weapon’s Amnesty head the Irish challenge, with Mikael D’Haguenet set to undergo a late fitness test before he can be confirmed. There isn’t much between the first-named pair, as we saw at Leopardstown over Christmas. Noel Meade said after that race that he hadn’t been entirely happy with Pandorama in the lead up. He will be freshened up again now, we won’t see him until 18th March, he has a serious engine and the left-handed track will be in his favour, but you would really worry about him even on goodish ground.

By contrast, Weapon’s Amnesty will be much more at home on ground that will almost certainly be better than the softish ground that he encountered at Leopardstown. A son of Presenting, the Charles Byrnes-trained gelding won the Albert Bartlett Hurdle last March, he has that invaluable commodity that is Cheltenham Festival winning form on the board, and he is a real player.

All things being equal, Ireland will probably be marginal favourites to beat England when they meet at Twickenham on 27th February, and so it is with the Arkle, home field advantage notwithstanding, with Captain Cee Bee and Sizing Europe heading the market. It is impossible to know what would have happened had Captain Cee Bee got his landing gear out on stands side of the final fence at Leopardstown in the Bord Na Mona Chase over Christmas. Regardless of what happens at Cheltenham on 16th March, we still won’t know for sure what would have happened at Leopardstown, different race, different day, different circumstances, and it is probable that not many people will care by then either, but at this juncture, the supposition is crucial, and it is more likely than not that Captain Cee Bee would have won.

Of course the fences are there to be jumped, as the old adage goes. If there weren’t any fences, and if they weren’t there to be jumped, we could just close the shop for the winter and go snowboarding for four months. But the thing is that the Eddie Harty-trained gelding did jump them, all 11 of them, he even jumped the last, he didn’t make that bad a mistake at the fence, he just clipped the top of it, came down a little steeply, and knuckled over, giving Mark Walsh no chance. He may not have found as much as it looked like he would, and Sizing Europe may have pulled out more, but such was the ease with which JP McManus’s horse travelled through the race, and such was the manner in which he made his ground, that if you had been betting in-running as they rose to the last, you would have bet odds-on Captain Cee Bee, odds-against Sizing Europe.

One caveat: there is a real chance that Sizing Europe didn’t give his true running that day. The Henry de Bromhead-trained gelding didn’t jump with the alacrity that was in evidence at Punchestown in November or October or last May. It may be a left-handed/right-handed thing, but it is impossible to know for sure, and it probably isn’t. He didn’t show any tendency to want to go to his right here, his first steeplechase at a left-handed track, and there was never anything to suggest that he was better going right-handed as a hurdler. Indeed, the best performance of his career over the smaller obstacles was when he won the AIG Hurdle at Leopardstown, going left. It may just have been a day when he didn’t feel at his brilliant best. Horses have those days as well.

There is no question that these two deserve to be at the top of the market, JP McManus’s horse the winner of a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, one of the best Supreme Novice Hurdles run in recent times, when he had the likes of Binocular, Snap Tie, Kalahari King, Blue Bajan and Tranquil Sea behind him; Alan Potts’s horse the winner of an Irish Champion Hurdle, the moral winner of a Champion Hurdle. And both of whom jump fences well.

History tells us that you have to have been a good hurdler if you are going to be competitive in the Arkle. Remarkably, Voy Por Ustedes is the only recent Arkle winner who didn’t boast a rating of 142 or more over hurdles. Last year, only three horses in the field were rated 142 or more – one of them fell, one of them finished fourth, and the other won it. In 2008, only four of the 14 runners had achieved that rating – again one of them fell, but the other three filled the first three places. Captain Cee Bee was rated 152 over hurdles, Sizing Europe was rated 167 at his peak. These two, along with Osana, are two of the classiest recruits to fences of recent times. It is shaping up to be a vintage year for the Arkle. Even the great Moscow Flyer was rated just 151 over hurdles before he started jumping fences.

The one fear is that, in novice chasing years, Captain Cee Bee (nine) and Sizing Europe (eight) are pensioners. The last nine-year-old to win the Arkle was Danish Flight in 1988. You have to go back to Sir Ken in 1956 to find the previous one, and you won’t find another, no matter how hard you look, in the 63-year history of the race, less one for Foot And Mouth. Eight-year-olds have fared slightly better. Moscow Flyer did it for the eight-year-olds in 2002, but before that you have to go back to Comandante in 1990. That’s only one renewal that has been won by a horse aged older than seven in the last 18.

We have back-up. It was quite surprising that the bookmakers, wily though they are, extended Sports Line’s odds for the Arkle after he got beaten by An Cathaoir Mor in the Irish Arkle last Sunday. The Willie Mullins-trained gelding is only seven, that was just his second run over fences, he was really impressive on his first and he was an exciting novice hurdler last term. On top of that, he got sucked into a battle up front at Leopardstown on Sunday, a battle which he ultimately won, coming home 20 lengths clear of his fellow scrappers Take The Breeze and Major Finnegan, only for An Cathaoir Mor, who had languished in Cabinteely for the majority of the race, to come and grab the booty. There has to be a chance now that, with Tataniano fluffing his 2/11 lines yesterday, Sports Line will have Ruby Walsh for company on 16th March, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Sadly, we won’t have Zaarito, but we may also have An Cathaoir Mor, should Henry de Bromhead decide to allow him take up some of the space on the plane with Sizing Europe, and Osana, 2008 Champion Hurdle runner-up who has traded his Three Lions crest for the shamrock under the grandfather rule, although his lineage is all French.

The English team is headed by two really exciting young chasers, Somersby and Riverside Theatre, but it looks like the Irish have strength in depth. The kick isn’t from the 22-yard line in front of the posts – none of them are, not even the ones from the 22-yard line in front of the posts – but it’s not from the half-way line either.

© The Irish Field, 30th January 2010